Life after death

Joey Hirl passed through death’s door, then turned around. His doctor and family consider it nothing short of a miracle.

Joey Hirl had no warning he was going to die that night.

“I had felt good all day,” said Hirl, who suffered a massive heart attack and died on July 2, 2014. “I had no idea.”

But there he was. Joey Hirl, 48 at the time, died on the table at Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital.

Lucky for him, a persistent emergency room doctor, Harold Moores, MD, refused to give up on him. Dr. Moores directed a dedicated team of medical professionals as they performed CPR for 57 minutes that night.

Typically, death is pronounced after about 10 minutes of attempted resuscitation.

But in this case, Joey’s will to live pushed back through death’s door.

‘My husband is dying’

“That night I was lying down, getting sweaty,” Joey recalled. “I had a couple of chest pains, but nothing to indicate I was going to die that night.”

The sensations grew. Joey attempted to drive himself to the hospital with his wife, Carole, as a passenger. They switched drivers partway there.

Irony and fate twist and turn. As the Hirls sped toward the Big Rapids Hospital, Dr. Moores, working in the emergency room that night, stepped outside to make a call on his cell phone.

“I’ve probably only done that four or five times in the almost 20 years I’ve worked here,” Dr. Moores said.

As Dr. Moores talked on the phone to a friend in California whose father was dying, Carole squealed up to the emergency entrance.

“She was screaming, ‘You have to help me, my husband is dying,’” Dr. Moores recalled. The doctor saw Joey’s limp body, slumped in the van’s seat, his face a sickening shade of blue.

Dr. Moores grabbed a gurney and summoned emergency room staff.

Joey’s breathing and pulse weakened as Dr. Moores moved him to the gurney.

Just as they entered the ER, Joey crashed. No pulse. No breath. No response. Nothing but the eerie silence of a void where life once was, a transition to a tomorrow that will never come.

Dr. Moores couldn’t let it end that way. He rushed Joey’s lifeless body into the major cardiac trauma room. And there, after 57 minutes of CPR, medicine and electrical shocks to the heart, his patient’s heartbeat returned.

‘He kept trying to live’

Life illuminated once again.

And in a world where medicine is more prevalent than miracles, Dr. Moores is convinced one truly did occur for Joey, who had suffered a heart attack in the left anterior descending artery, commonly known as the “widow-maker.”

“He technically was dead,” Dr. Moores said. “Here we are 13 minutes into it. The standard for CPR is you go 10 minutes, then you’re done. We kept trying because he kept trying. He would get a sustained rhythm with a pulse, then we would lose it. He kept trying to live.”

Each time he was about to call it, Joey’s heart fluttered. Dr. Moores said he’s never known a patient to survive after working on him or her for so long.

“When I tell this story to other medical professionals, they don’t believe it,” Dr. Moores said. “It’s like what Yogi Berra says. It’s not over ’til it’s over. Just when I was ready to quit, his heart kept coming back. Thank God for deciding it wasn’t his time to go.”

He puts the odds that night of Joey making it at 8 percent, 12 percent tops.

“I’ve coded people 40 or 50 minutes, but they never wake up,” he said. “I’ve never had a 57-minute code that survived. Neurologically, he’s normal. With a lot of outcomes, they’re vegetables and they never return to normal life.”

Big Rapids ER staff took turns doing compressions.

“It’s very time-sensitive,” Dr. Moores said. “The CPR never stopped. It’s important that you do everything by the book.”

Joey calls Dr. Moores and the staff “rock stars.” Joey’s become a bit of a rock star himself, and a real-life poster child. His face adorns Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital posters that tout the facility’s rehabilitation resources, where he spent several weeks regaining strength after his ordeal.

“This team down here is like second to nobody,” Joey said with a warm Boston brogue. “The doc doesn’t take enough credit, but he teaches these guys. All these kids idolize rappers. They should be spending time in the emergency rooms and spending time with these teams.”

‘Minutes count’

Dr. Moores and Joey reunited recently in the Big Rapids Emergency Department lobby. They held each other in a brief bear hug, neither one believing what the other had accomplished in their respective lives.

“You’re a first for me,” Dr. Moores told the now-50-year-old Massachusetts native who moved to Michigan 17 years ago after meeting his wife here.

Joey bantered back.

“I had the easy part,” he said. “Dying is easy. Coming back is the job. For these guys to bring a person back to life, that’s magical.”

Dr. Moores walked Joey to the trauma room where staff worked on his heart, then shared how they cooled Joey’s body to 33 degrees that night to increase chances of a positive outcome.

After the long odds of bringing Joey back to life, the odds of a positive outcome took another dramatic turn when Dr. Moores tried to arrange emergency transport for Joey to the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids.

A turbulent storm forced the helicopter en route from Kalamazoo to turn back.

“They got halfway here and aborted because of the storm,” Dr. Moores recalled. “Minutes count. He needed a stent put in; that’s what needed to be done. It was killing us to think we could run out of time.”

As thunder rolled, so did the tears of Joey’s family as Dr. Moores painfully revealed slim survival odds.

Staff arranged ground transport, knowing it might be Joey’s last trip alive.

But Joey’s will to live, and his unwillingness to say goodbye, triumphed again. Joey made it to Grand Rapids, where West Michigan Heart cardiologists put in four stents and performed an ablation.

“I was pretty much on life support for 15 days,” Joey said. “Every time they pulled me off it, I would crash.”

‘Joey, it’s not your time’

Joey said he saw his mother during that time. His mom had died two years prior.

“I don’t know if it was the Fentanyl (pain medication) or what, but I saw my mom and she told me, ‘Joey, it’s not your time, you have to go back.’ That was the first thing I told my wife. That I saw my mom and I needed to turn back and come back. It was very vivid for me. I don’t know, but I know there’s something great that awaits us.”

Joey experienced that greatness here on Earth, in Big Rapids and in Grand Rapids.

Spectrum Health Medical Group cardiologist Nagib Chalfoun, MD, said Joey’s heart was functioning at only 25 percent when he arrived at the Meijer Heart Center.

“Throughout the next several days he started having an irregular heartbeat from the top part of his heart called atrial fibrillation and eventually atrial flutter,” Dr. Chalfoun said. “He was shocked again for this irregular heartbeat.”

But the bad beats persisted, and his heart raced at 140 beats per minute despite medications aimed to put on the brakes.

“Because we were trying to maximize his heart recovery, it was important to control his rhythms,” Dr. Chalfoun said. “I proceeded with an ablation procedure to burn the atrial flutter.”

That procedure has a 95 percent long-term success rate, and Joey is among the positive statistics.

“By the time he left the hospital, his heart function was up to 60 percent, which is normal,” Dr. Chalfoun said. “He has an excellent prognosis and should be considered cured with this ablation. He can live a healthy long life if he continues to control his other risk factors.”

Those risk factors, for Joey, for you and for me, include avoiding smoking and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol down and our weight under control.

‘Graced with God’

Joey said the experience changed him. He no longer takes health, his family, or moments for granted. He eats healthier, exercises more and encourages other people to get tested for heart disease.

He spends more time talking to strangers, until they aren’t anymore.

“I used to go shopping at Meijer’s, get my stuff and go home. Now, I take time. I know the kid at the fish department that no one talks to. I talk to him. Life is busy, but what am I in such a rush for? Now, I sit and talk to people. They know about my life. I know about their life.”

When he hears an emergency vehicle, he gets out of the way immediately because he knows better than anyone—every second counts.

“When I see (a medical helicopter) fly over my house it takes my breath away because I know there’s somebody going on that journey that I went on and they’re fighting for their life right now. I’ll look up and I’ll have a tear in my eye because I know there’s a family facing what my family faced.”

And he says a prayer, that the family, and the patient, will be graced with God, and the right people in the right place at the right time.

“God truly puts the right people in your path,” Joey said. “How do you bring a guy back from the dead? How do you thank somebody for giving you a second chance in life? It’s magical what they did. It’s just a totally amazing story.”

Spectrum Health offers preventive cardiology services to help reduce the risk of a serious cardiac event. Take time to speak with your doctor about strategies to keep your heart and vascular system healthy.

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Comments (27)

  • Wow. What an Amazing Story. So Inspirational.

    What a great reminder for why we do what we do, and for believing in miracles

  • This is an amazing and inspiring story! My brother-in-law is Dr. Harold Moores and I am so proud of him! He’s an awsome doctor and a wonderful human being! I hope Joey lives a long and healthy life!

  • Joey you’re one amazing man and this story is amazing! You’re such a blessing and God has you on this earth for a purpose. Thank you for sharing this story along with you having such a great doctor put in your path! God bless!

  • I went to school with Joey, have not seen him in 30 years. What an amazing story and recovery. A wonderful outcome and 2nd chance. So happy for him and his family.

  • This is absolutely amazing, just like all my co-workers in the Big Rapids ER who perform miracles on a regular basis. Thank you for saving Joey and every other life you’ve all saved!

  • Such an AMAZING story! I have had the privilege to have worked in ER Registration and have seen the compassion and concern Dr. Moores has for his patients! He is the Best… Truly a WONDERFUL outcome! The staff should also be praised for the TEAM EFFORT….so vital in situations like this! So Happy for the positive outcome Joey…..Glad you fought your way back! God Bless You!

  • Such a great story. It does not surprise me at all. Dr. Moore is a fantastic doctor. The compassion for his work is not unnoticed at all. If I have to visit ER I will be heading to Big Rapids for sure. MJ

  • Having 40+ years as a nurse, I know the statistics about CPR. Harold, you obviously have a gift. I shared this with my staff. Great job, cousin!

  • I’ve known Joey all my life and am not surprised he gave the Doctors a run for their money, pushing Science to limits they didn’t know they could pass. Will to live and faith prevail. Thank you to all who had a hand in bringing him

  • I’ve known Joey all my life…

    I am not surprised he gave the Doctors a run for their money, pushing Science to limits they didn’t know they could pass.

    Thank you to all who had a hand in bringing him back and keeping him here. Praise God for his will to live and faith, it prevailed…

  • This amazing story drew me in and I couldn’t stop reading. I don’t know anyone in this story but I do work for Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids as a biller. I have always believed in God and in miracles and this is truely a modern day miracle! The one sentence that makes this story so amazing to me is when you said ” I know there’s something great that awaits us”. This brings me so much hope for the after life and I have chills and tears of great joy! thank you for sharing yourexperience and God Bless!

    • Thank you for your comments, Carol, and for being a reader! Feel free to share this story and others with your friends and family. 🙂

  • I have the privledge of knowing both Carole and Joey personally. As a Registered Nurse, I understood the odds that Joey was facing every day. I remember speaking with Carole via phone while Joey was in Grand Rapids. I could hear the pain and anxiety in her voice, then she said to me “We are leaving this hospital together. I’m not going home without my husband”. I believe their love for one another was strong enough to keep them connected and a immense source of strength. What an amazing story of miracles and medicine. Thanks for sharing with us.

  • My son at the age of 52 had a cardiac arrest. I heard him crash to the floor and when I went to him he was not breathing. I called 911 and then began pounding on his chest. We were very fortunate that a state policeman was at our door minutes later. He began CPR and called for an ambulance. The EMTs began treatment and then he was loaded into an ambulance. The short story is that he was taken to Spectrum Health, Butterworth where he was put into their cardiac section. After a pace maker was implanted and a total of 10 days in the hospital he went to Mary Freebed rehabilitation center. He was one of those that survived!

    • Thank you, Jeanette, for sharing your son’s story. We’re so glad he’s doing well now! Thanks, also, for being a Health Beat reader. 🙂

  • Every aspect of this story is nothing short of a miracle. I had the pleasure of coordinating a rural emergency medicine conf. with Dr. Moores a few years back. Dr. Moores is a very skilled, experienced, and compassionant physician. His commitment to the importance of providing high level, high quality emergency medicine in a rural community is no doubt evidenced in the life-saving care Mr. Hirl received from Dr. Moores and his team of
    clinicians and the EMTs (likely rural community paramedics as well) who transported him to SH Grand Rapids. Kudos to you all at SH Big Rapids Emergency Department!!
    This patient will truly consider you all as his friends for life! Some years ago my dad had chest pain and thankfully he had the presence of mind to dial 911 (although he has no memory of anything in the hours leading up to him calling an ambulance) he was taken via ambulance to SH Blodgett and within minutes of his arrival when they were transporting him from the ambulance stretcher to the ED stretcher he went into sudden cardiac arrest, no heartbeat. They shocked him probably three or four times, gave him meds and eventually they were able to revive him. I’ll never forget that day and I’ve always been so thankful for the physicians, the ambulance paramedics and all the amazing staff for being our miracle workers that July day!! We are all blessed with these clinicians and their commitment to excellence with every patient, every time!! Thank you!!

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